Balken exchange

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Lynsey Winton was one of 100 Scottish students whose summer was spent teaching conversational English to Romanian pupils

Train! Get off the tracks!" Interspersed with the whistle from the approaching engine, 11 Scottish voices howled to the 200 or so children strolling towards Sunciuis for a day out. The crowd dived down the embankment, sheltering their ears and bodies from the noise, dust and force of the Bucharest-bound Intercity.

This could not happen in Scotland. Teachers would never be allowed to take so many children on such an adventure without an inordinate amount of parental consent forms and at least 10 adult helpers. But the Romanian education system is rather different.

Neither would inexperienced teachers in Scotland be left in charge of a class of 40 pupils of assorted age, ability and confidence whose native language they could not speak. Nor would children across the country from as young as seven be encouraged to spend their summer learning a foreign language.

Most Scottish students steered clear of Romania this summer. But under the auspices of the Scottish Romanian Language Link, about 100 volunteers from four Scottish universities were recruited to teach conversational English to Romanian school children. SCROLL was established in 1991 as a cultural link between the two countries.

For four weeks in July and August, I was part of a team of 11 students from Aberdeen University based in the Mihail Eminescu School in Oradea, an industrial town in north-west Transylvania. I lived with two Romanian families as part of a cultural exchange, and taught a lower intermediate class of 10 - to 14-year-olds.

Enthusiasm and experience with children and of travel were desirable characteristics for candidate teachers. Of the 30 students selected from Aberdeen University, few had ever taught a class. I had worked for a year as a part-time community education youth worker, studied abroad and been to Eastern Europe, and was keen to do something constructive in Romania.

Despite nine months of meetings and training sessions, the production of 30 folders of lesson plans and a weekend course on teaching English as a foreign language, there was no way you could really prepare for the Romanian experience. Without children or a language barrier, it was impossible to simulate genuine classroom conditions.

The classroom reflected many aspects of wider society; the country has not yet emerged from the ravages of the Ceausescu regime. On arrival the naivete of our lesson plans became apparent. Ad hoc innovation was essential. We were confronted with twice as many pupils as originally anticipated, and class sizes fluctuated.

Teaching took place between 9am and 12.30pm with a half-hour break. Since students came from a number of schools and were not all acquainted with each other, we tried to begin with a warm-up exercise. Lessons often followed a particular theme, such as popular culture, travel or the media. Later activities evolved into paired and group work, with the class brought back together for the final session.

Afternoons began around 2pm in the yard, where Scottish dancing and sport were taught, often in high humidity. Fridays were for excursions to the cinema, museum, local monastery or whatever came top in the vote. In the final week a "mad Olympics" was held for younger classes, while everyone put dances into practice at a ceilidh.

Literature occupied a substantial part of upper intermediate and advanced classes with Scottish writers and poets such as Irvine Welsh and Liz Lochhead being explored. Some teachers taught Doric and common colloquial phrases to produce an authentic impression of spoken English. Meanwhile lower intermediate and beginner classes revolved more around games and activities which drew upon communication, acting and artistic skills to keep children entertained. Singing proved successful with all classes - most learned "Flower of Scotland" and other traditional tunes as well as pop songs from Pulp, The Beatles and The Fugees. Rows of desks in most classes were moved to form circles and groups. It was all quite a contrast to the normal classroom where pupils learned from text books in a system where grammar played an important role. Apparently new methods raised initial astonishment but soon received assent.

Romanian schools are very strict. Occasionally the Romanian teacher would "invade" the classroom by surprise - pupils would immediately rise from their seats and silence would reign. Generally the student teachers had established themselves as approachable rather than authoritarian. With more junior classes particularly, where children were inclined to forget where fun stopped and being bad began, a variety of disciplines were applied, such as "naughty seats". Failing that, the threat of a Romanian teacher usually produced the desired effect.

Most of the children had parents who were keen for them to learn English, in the belief that it was a key to future opportunities. Many pupils were eager to leave Romania or to work in international relations or tourism.

Several Romanians we met had idealised views of life in the UK and the US. Since Ceausescu's death, cable television has appeared in many homes; previously there were only two hours of TV a day, all of which was propaganda. While access to English-speaking stations helps children to learn the language, life in the West tends to be over-glamorised.

As teachers we had a duty to dispel false beliefs; we pointed out that the UK and US have social problems too. Issues such as the environment or the future, or moral issues like drugs, religion and human rights were debated at all levels.

Living with a Romanian family gave us a real insight into the horrors of the Ceausescu regime, the suffering of ethnic minorities and the people's hopes and fears about what lay ahead. Their paranoia about Western perceptions of them as poverty-stricken gypsies with AIDS-ridden orphans surfaced. While we could paint a few grey clouds in their rosy picture of Britain, we could also share in the positive discoveries we had made.

Romanian children certainly have an advantage over those in Britain in learning a second language at the age of eight; many we met were fairly fluent by 15 or 16. The contrast between their eagerness to learn and the apathetic attitudes I have encountered in Scotland was saddening. But despite the hope, incentive and encouragement we tried to give the children, their prospects are unclear. Foreseeing no solution to the country's problems, some want to leave - unemployment now stands at 17 per cent. But the stigma of being Romanian, along with the tightening of immigration laws, prevents many from acquiring visas.

In spite of the barriers, the programme was a great success. It was a valuable experience for anyone considering teaching as a career. It taught me about my own strengths and weaknesses and about opportunities in my own country I might otherwise have taken for granted.

Lynsey Winton is an English and politics student at Aberdeen University * Anyone interested in applying to be a volunteer teacher in Romania, should contact SCROLL on 0131 467 1723

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